So, now it is time for the next confession: Will we ever be finished with the Mommy Wars? Every time I think the battle has been finished, laid aside for the tangled mess it is, someone jumpstarts the debate again. This time it was Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic, with her article stating the impossibility of combining women working as power players in the upper echelons of corporate America with motherhood. The New York Times delved deeper into the issue with Susan Chira’s “To Have (It All) and Have Not” and explored some of the backlash that such claims make. Both articles got me stirred up again and ready for battle (it doesn’t take much these days to get me into an argumentative mood, especially with three teenage daughters).
I particularly relished those who want to ban the term “have it all” because of its vagueness and the impossible standard it creates. Sometimes I feel like that would be a good idea. When people talk about having it all, especially moms, it seems like they are offering us a life of window dressing … well-behaved children, a helpful husband, supportive workplace, no visible roots. From the outside looking in, it seems feasible. Work as hard as a man to be accepted into the corporate world of today.
Other times, I realize banning the word ignores the reality that we buy into the word and the values it conveys. From the inside looking out, wondering what the world sees when they see us, having it all feels like a whole lot of mess and confusion. Inevitably we fall short, of either our own personal standards or the societal standards we have adopted. When that happens, we blame lots of people and institutions, but mainly ourselves. Banning the phrase does nothing. The crux of the matter is, what is the reality of success we are striving for, both men and women? Who is defining it—corporations, society, our friends, ourselves? In setting the bar to make it in a man’s world, on a man’s terms, have we surrendered the opportunity to imagine a “better reality”?
When feminism first tackled the issue, it stayed largely within the dominant paradigm of workplace success. In Europe, feminists lobbied for increased societal support; in the United States, they lobbied for equal opportunity. I don’t know that either worked out very well, since we don’t see a lot of working mothers in the upper echelons of corporations in either place. However, I do believe that policies supporting parents will make a difference, long-term. Already, so much has changed from when I became an adult. I met my first at-home dad while in college; he was a novelty I had never seen before and didn’t expect to see much of in the future. Now, my husband is one. Flex-time was an idea when I started working; now it is the reality for many friends at small and international corporations. Consultants, small-business owners, entrepreneurs, so many of the parents I know and hear about have gone that route to create the flexibility they need. By the time my daughters are parents and then grandparents, hopefully there will be more options that allow them to have “more” of what they want.
Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, offers the best option, to my eyes. Her idea is that the mommy track is not a bridge to nowhere. It can lead to somewhere. It just follows the ebb and flow of life with children, not necessarily a straight and short path. Sometimes you are able to give 100 percent and press forward at a record pace. Other times, you take a different path and meander a bit. And sometimes you step off the well-traveled path, looking at careers that are more flexible and more accommodating of parenting. Or you just wait a bit; after all, we have plenty of time to pursue careers and children grow very quickly. That trajectory I was following in my early 20s didn’t suffer terribly from the at-home years before returning to work. The biggest hit was on the salary front. When I returned to work, I was making a shade more than the salary I exited working professionally 12 years before. That was painful but also understandable. And it made me a bit more hungry to advance a career, more focused on what I wanted out of work and what I was willing to compromise on and what I would hold fast to retain.
I guess I believe you can have it all, just not all at once. But you have to define the “all” you want as things you really want. None of this “I want to be a veterinarian, judge, lawyer, author, dictator of the world” stuff I would spout when I was young. Several lifetimes would not allow me to accomplish the many things I think I want to do. But the things I really want, they are simpler and I can connect the dots between working and not, between this job and that career, to make them happen. It just takes time and patience and, after raising three girls, I have an abundance of that. So, how about you?